How To Navigate Our Collective Food Anxiety

image via Marie Saba

image via Marie Saba


Are hot dogs really as bad for you as cigarettes?
Will coffee send you to an early grave? Is gluten fogging your brain or is it dairy?
There are 40,000 items in the supermarket, but it sometimes feels like there’s nothing safe to eat.

Eat this! Don’t eat that!
There’s a steady barrage of nutritional advice and medical headlines, and they usually contradict earlier messages. We’ve seen good foods gone bad— think of tuna and margarine. Dietary no-no’s like coffee, red wine, eggs, and chocolate are the new health foods, but toasted bread is carcinogenic. Yes to sugar, no to soy. Or is it yes to soy? We’re counseled to eat more fatty acids, except whoops, gotta watch the Omega-6s. I forget, are we eating butter this week?

food-allergyFood avoidance has become a way of life.
We read labels for the un-ingredients, more interested in what’s not in food than what’s in it. The packaged foods industry reports that 52% of consumers are avoiding specific ingredients, up from 26% in less than a decade. Those afflicted with allergies, sensitivities or specific health problems are in the minority. The rest of us are opting out of certain foods and ingredients as a lifestyle choice. And those packaged food marketers love the trend; they get to charge a clean label premium to a larger share of the market than is medically or nutritionally justified. Take gluten-free products: less than one per cent of the population needs to avoid gluten but more than 29 per cent chooses to avoid iteven though it’s estimated that a gluten-free diet can double the cost of groceries (and ironically, the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness show that the number one stressor for celiac patients is not the disease itself but the cost of the diet).

We agonize over food in ways that would mystify earlier generations who only worried about getting enough.
It’s been called the gastronomic equivalent of having too much time on our hands, and the abundance has allowed our thoughts to run amok, turning one of our most basic pleasures into a significant source of anxiety. When fear crosses into phobia, it even gets its own clinical diagnosis: Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder, also known as Selective Eating Disorder, appears in the newest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

Additives, dyes, GMOs, hormones…they give us good reasons to seek out dietary advice.
Recognize that solid, evidence-based advice seldom deals in absolutes. It’s constantly updated and revised as it accounts for the evolving, nuanced landscape of diets and populations. On the flipside are the food marketers, alarmist media, and health gurus whose unambiguous claims are too often ill-informed and lacking context. They escalate our fears and lead us into the kind of avoidance and deprivation that may be unnecessary and unsound, and will certainly be less enjoyable.

As the late, great Julia Child used to say:
“If you’re afraid of butter, just use cream.”


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